Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Out sourced, out manoeuvred

To listen to the media, out sourcing is the answer to almost all our prayers. The great Indian solution. The fillip the economy needs. You read all those fashionable business catch phrases in articles about it. I’ve been looking up articles and newspaper editorials on the subject, and somehow, most of it seems to me to be determinedly, almost hysterically, cheerful.

Many people seem to have accepted the governments dictate that it’s a Good Thing, and is the solution to a lot of our problems. The industry is growing, more people are drifting into call centers and other bpo offices, and everyone’s happy. The ideal way to make a quick buck. Experience doesn’t matter, neither does education – some places are now hiring even high school dropouts.

Ah, now a few articles about how theres a lot of stress. How theres a high turnover – anywhere from 20 to 80%. How people are burnt out. (Not bad. Finally!) But no, just a few voices saying these few things and that’s the end of objective analysis of the concept. Case closed. Verdict: its still a fantastic thing for us.

Of course, all this was in the beginning. Now nobody has the time to discuss such things – it’s a matter of percentage growth, potential revenue and national averages. Economics steps forward yet again to kindly provide us with the numbers and indices we so willingly blind ourselves with. The focus now, is on remedying the “disparities” in demand and supply of labour and other such obstacles which stand in the way of our becoming an outsourcing haven.

One of the worrying things about the outsourcing trend is the totally skewed set of priorities in development issues. One of the pet peeves of companies in outsourcing is the sub standard infrastructure in our country. So before we provide people with decent drinking water, health care and sanitation, we are racking our brains on how to connect them to the global market.

I spoke to someone recently – this lady is into mental health and behavioural research. She was explaining how her organisation (in the us) was doing research amongst people working in the call centres and the things they learned in the studies. She also explained the kind of stress management programs they were testing and trying out.

Hang on a minute. As far as I know, most of the outsourcing happens from the us or the uk. They make money by sending us the dirty work to do and paying less for it, as well as by telling us how its bad for us and what we need to do to cope with it? Wow. Breath taking dual standards!

If we look at the chunk of the work done in outsourcing here, its way down in the value addition chain. the kind of work that is being outsourced is mostly jobs that are repetitive and (lets face it) plain boring. That’s why theyre so stressful. That’s why the first world doesn’t want to do it. (rather like the forest products trade embargo merry-go-round you know.)

When I was swapping views with one of my friends, she came up with this angle, which I thought was very interesting. She said, by advertising ourselves as cheap labour, we are simply dooming ourselves to coolie status. Nobody respects our brain pool here because we have succeeded in branding ourselves as “cheap skilled labour”. You stand a chance only by fleeing to some other country where “cheap” isn’t the USP. I think there may be something in that.

it’s a lethal situation: given the choice in a nation of primarily poor people between a regular job (intellectually stimulating in the usual degree but of normal pay) and a job that’s mundane but will fetch so much more money… which way will a person fall? Which way will a school kid fall? Wait and slog through college, or drop out in eleventh standard? Got to hand it to them you know, they do set traps well these days.

In a global socio-economic order where there is a price tag on everything, money is certainly a whole lot of power. The first world can afford to make dirty deals like outsourcing, and we will continue to foolishly and greedily try to play their game.

Theres an incredible amount of stress in just schooling ones self to live an alien culture and assume an alien identity when one is surrounded by a totally different environment. Theres a whole host of health problems caused simply by the insane hours of work. Theres also added complication in the form of alienation from peers and family, work pressures, dealing with abusive customers or clients who feel they’ve a right to be aggressive because their jobs have been stolen. (ironically even within a bpo, the trend is moving towards filling supervisory and executive positions by hiring foreigners, so actually what we get is the dregs of the jobs.) It’s a cess pool out there.

Maybe we will realise how dangerous a deal we are pushing for by the time the current generation of youth reaches its forties amidst depression, stress and other health disorders, and complete burnout.

Maybe it will also be too late then.



Blogger ~phobiac~ said...

actually out sourcing isn't just call centers and BPO..and certainly not work that comes outta US or is a term thats used to describe certain work being given to an expert group outside the company as this particular company's core competency aint that

an automobile company asking a computer company to do some ERP work.....the auto comp's core area is not computers so the work is given out....or a bank having security pesonnell from a security company.....the same issue with core competency.....

ur mom getting rice ground at a flour mill is also outsourcing.....even SBI,ICICI bank...outsource work.....

Outsourcing happens everywhere..Hyundai and Ford here In India outsouce the glass work to saintgobain or some other glass firm, here India....the tyres mfg by some other...everything is out sourcing....

the problems u have highlighted r very ture....not only to this kinda work....but dont u see this happening in every other job ?....

See if we r going to feed,cloth and take care of over a billion people and then develop infrastructure....where will the money come from....development of wor,infrast',living standards,medics....everything should happen I think the priorities arent that skewed..

see..I work for a s/w company....technically speaking even the work I do is outsourced work....

outsourcing happens jus because it is boring and repetitive...and the people there hate to do it.???...there have been protests in the so called first world againt this OS....why is that ?....

cheap we r being paid well in line with the Indian standards....if a toffee costa 1$ instead of a ruppee...then our pay is cheap....It is in the perspective....and understanding of the whole thing....

I am not saying all OS are healthy for our country...jus that generalising based on a few OS work aint right 2 OS are the same and donot operate the same way......

8:20 pm  
Blogger Indu M said...

I agree to a certain extent with phobiac. Although "outsourcing" would conjure up images of factory-like call centers, thats not what its all about.

given the choice... between a regular job (intellectually stimulating in the usual degree but of normal pay) and a job that’s mundane but will fetch so much more money...
True that call center jobs may be mundane, but thats an attribute shared by a million other jobs in India. How many people employed in Govt Offices actually find their work intellectually simulating?

The fact that outsourcing brought in employement opportunities, cannot be denied. I am not too keen on calling this dirty work either. I feel every job deserves a certain sense of dignity. Being a call center employee does not mean that what you do does not matter,and doesn't add any value. In fact, there are people in the US who are raising a hue and cry about us stealing their "dirty work"

Another fact that is not highlighted by the numbers is that several people DO NOT see call center work as a long term career option. Many take up such jobs to save up money for their education, or to undergo some other skill/vocational training (computers, S/W etc) and then move on to other jobs. The attrition figures do not reveal this aspect.

I agree with you that branding ourselves as cheap labour will not get us anywhere. But this is not a fact that hasn't been realised by the sector. In fact, many entrepreneurs realise that our potential lies in moving up the value chain, and only that can bring sustained contributions to the economy.

Its here that things like IT offshoring, Knowledge Process Outsourcing etc come into picture. The jobs offered here are much more engaging and interesting - but of course, they demand a higher skill set than that possessed by the average call center employee.

10:12 pm  
Blogger H said...

If I stick to your conception of what outsourcing is and what areas it includes - you are absolutely right, we are on a short-term sprint before we get manila-d or romania-d - in those areas. If we can never match xyz country's lower prices, making a fast buck naturally becomes the priority and brings in more players to cash in when it is still shining.

I think the idea of the first world not wanting to do boring and repetitive work is a little far-fetched. If one is on the dole, it does not matter what work fetches the daily bread. As you point out, it is more due to the omni-present need to ratchet up 'growth figures' every single time (like meeting insane analyst expectations) by 'lowering costs' that has triggered the move in those countries.

10:42 pm  
Blogger m. said...

@phobiac: Hullo. I guess since you’re in the software/IT line, you would have experienced first hand or seen the kind of pressure people are under!

Ok, BPO is business process outsourcing, right? Hmm…I’m sorry, I don’t quite understand what you’re saying in this sentence: “actually out sourcing isn't just call centers and BPO” …

Yes, a lot of outsourcing does take place. local b2b isn’t so bad, what I was referring to specifically is the kind that happens across the globe, requiring people to work 24x7 … sorry, should’ve been clearer I guess.

Infrastructure: “everything should happen together”. Couldn’t agree more. If there were as concerted a push for water and sanitation and food as for technology, it would be fantastic. My concern is that since there isn’t, what may happen is that a village may end up having 3 e-booths, and no drinking water supply!!

(Have you tried P sainath's “everybody loves a good drought”? Fantastic book – he has written about some basic issues and the condition of rural India.)

“Being a call center employee does not mean that what you do does not matter,and doesn't add any value.” That’s what im driving at! Just because it’s a support function, it doesn’t mean the people working in it shouldn’t be treated well : I for one wouldn’t call the hours and the stress they handle decent conditions at all.
That some do this to be able to fund their education is sad: don’t you think genuine access to education should be something the government should focus on?

Knowledge Process Outsourcing is not something I know much about. But in your own words, people would need a wider set of skills and more training for something like that. So what do they do if they don’t have money? They come back to call centres and other similar BPO offices. The same old rut again.

@H: This is not something I know first hand, but I am told whether it is in Paris or New York, by and large, people don’t usually work weekends or after say 6pm. I guess they’ve learned the hard way that burn out helps nobody. So my take is that now since we are such willing suckers, the work and pressure is transferred here. I do have a strong bias against first world politics! So could be far fetched – I dunno! :-)

10:59 pm  
Blogger Woodworm said...

I have thought about this a little, and for long I was convinced that the crux of the problem was the emphasis on new economy jobs the supposedly cream layer that rides over stronger foundations. For example, there is no IT without say - Finance and Banking or Manufacturing or Health care. And no ITES without IT. So the deeper we go probably the less unsettled your job scenario is.

It came as a revelation of sorts, when a person I know - who was involved in the shipping container industry, expressed his views on how his job is going. He was actually telling me that he works practically 19*7.

His is a pretty white-collar job. Every day a new shipment arrives, and he has to scrutinise, negotiate, get things moving, release stuff, transfer - stuff like that. There is nothing BPO-ish about it, nor is there an IT element lurking around as a villain in this case. And he can hardly say a no, when the port authorities decide to release a shipment from quarantine on a Sunday.

I am still figuring out - what that means.. And these days I am not very sure - if this is a first world-third world question or a corejob-outsourced dirty job question.

Probably the way we conduct our lives is changing - all over the world???

5:17 am  
Blogger sensiblystoned said...

First things first, "dirty work" in the US? Let me tell you theres no such thing as dirty work in the US however mundane it might be. Everybody in the US considers their job to be very important and they treat every job with equal respect as long as it is makes a honest buck. Stress; I havent seen a country that pays more importance to stress and breakdowns resulting from work. Of all the reasons for outsourcing, your reasoning that it is mundane for the first world to do it, is contrived to say the least.

And you are right abour americans not working after 6pm and weekends. Thats why most americans are paid in the hourly basis and not monthly. But there are 24X7 call centers that are manned by americans too.

I have worked in a call center for 5 months to know about the nature of the job and the stress. It really pisses you off when you try to be good at work and the caller decides to deride you for the work that you do. Thats why I dont like the job, but i guess every job has its own windfall. And a career in a BPO isnt such a bad idea either. Stress, you have to see it to believe the amount of stress, thats where I believe that software companies are better prepared to de-stress compared to call centers. The amount of caffeine and cigarettes that are smoked, makes you want to think that the idea behind call centers are a part of greater conspiracy theory on behalf of tobacco companies to induce more people into smoke. The attrition rates I believe are more or less comparable to a software company.

But, the fact the call centers seem to contribute towards a chunk of economic growth more than agriculture is really peeving. Theres this piece news that I heard which shocked me. India is now importing Bostonian apples because the latest crop of apples failed due to water shortage :(

What about companies that outsource? How concerned are they about the infrastructure in countries where they are being outsourced to? Find the answer in this link. Absolutely ingenious and damning.

3:14 pm  
Blogger Eroteme said...

I don't think the media ever said that outsourcing is the answer to all our prayers. They do recognise it as a good option that we need to strengthen.
Do you really think it is a govt. diktat? Centres were constructed and people swarmed them. If people hadn't joined them, they would have died a natural death. If they are ok with no/little experience and minimal education, don't you see this as a great avenue for combating our employment problem? It doesn't have to be a bad thing.

Tell me one place where there is less amount of stress. Go to banks now and watch those suave officers stay extra late to make the month end closing. Meet a bunch of lawyers who are ready to do anything their senior says as long as they get some recognition and eventually some case to handle. Look at doctors: a sudden page and they rush in the middle of the night to the hospital... Look at the intellectual folk doing stimulating jobs. Rather don't look at them, they paint a really bad picture. People writing code till late hours in the night. Urggghh!
Turnover is fairly high in the industry. Once the Support centres saturate the turnover rate will drop and then plateau. Happens always.
It is a stressful job and there are numerous health risks involved, but so are the armed services. I don't see anyone complaining about that. Well, the pay isn't high and the onsite locations aren't really great! Every job has its set of risks.

"So before we provide people with decent drinking water, health care and sanitation, we are racking our brains on how to connect them to the global market."
And where do you get the money for that? No seriously. We need to earn money and systematically invest it in these concerns. That it is not being done is another issue, but that we have to earn money and quit begging from the IMF is something we have to accept. Tourism, industries, software, etc. are some of the avenues. Now teachers are also being pulled in from India. UK recently had its papers corrected here. We need to pull in business and means of earning money so that we can systematically improve the conditions throughout this country. Not a simpe job for such a large and overflowing country. If your point was that we aren't investing money in these areas, I would agree, but to say that since we need to invest money in these areas, lets not waste time with BPOs and fancy airports and stuff... Naaah. Not done.

"She also explained the kind of stress management programs they were testing and trying out."
There are two ways of looking at this. One way you have picked. The other way of looking at it is appreciating that they (the US and UK and other places) don't treat their employees like machines and are concerned about their general welfare.

"the kind of work that is being outsourced is mostly jobs that are repetitive and (lets face it) plain boring."
Its not stressful purely due to the boredom. It is stressful because of the stakes. You cannot afford to lose a customer. You have to fight it out and see to it that you go the extra yard to keep him to your company. It is tough, but if you don't like it, get another job. You can't be a fireman and complain about the regular exposure to heat!
Boredom is internal. One can be in a high end research firm and still complain of boredom. I have seen people keep themeselves excited while being a watchman at a school (my school watchman taught me a lot and bought me some nice candies too).

"She said, by advertising ourselves as cheap labour, we are simply dooming ourselves to coolie status"
Do you know how tenders are placed for the construction of something public? Do you know how projects are won from a customer?
Competitive pricing is not new. Sales and discounts have been there for a long time. Had we priced ourselves at the same rate of our American counterpart two things would be obvious:
1. We don't get any jobs
2. Non-software and non-BPO people would have complained about the disparities and cried foul and sour grapes and made a ruckus about everything and soon prices for everything would go up and availability goes down.
Do you realise that the software guys are paid the most? Far more than any other engineer or a doctor. You still call it cheap labour? They (guys in US) earn in dollars and spend in dollars. You can't earn in dollars and spend in rupees. Yeah right, high hopes!! :-)

"between a regular job (intellectually stimulating in the usual degree but of normal pay) and a job that’s mundane but will fetch so much more money… which way will a person fall? Which way will a school kid fall? Wait and slog through college, or drop out in eleventh standard? Got to hand it to them you know, they do set traps well these days."

Mind you this has nothing to do with poor countries. Even in a rich country if you offered the same choices the picks might be predictable. Its about humans not about poor and rich countries. Try sending the BPO jobs back to US for half the pay (than what they were originally) and people out there would flock back to them.

The traps were always there.

"The first world can afford to make dirty deals like outsourcing, and we will continue to foolishly and greedily try to play their game."
Ouch. You really are hard on them. Fine. Granted. Now let's hear you come up with a better strategy of an employment generating avenue which is
1. not stressful
2. not condescending
3. intellectually stimulating
4. high paying
5. not too demanding on my preparatory stages (education, internship, apprenticeship, etc.)


2:47 am  
Blogger Vitalstatistix said...

some opinions/qns and will try to avoid the viewpoints put by phobiac and eroteme
1. If there is no OFFSHORE outsourcing, then Indians would have to work for Indian companies. If all Indian companies were to restrict their work to only within India, the amount of work available comes down drastically. Do you think it will be possible to employ atleast a majority of the booming Indian poulation with such less demand ?

2. You talked abt Indians not occupying higher posts in foreign organizations and being left to do the menial jobs. In this capitalist economy don't you think that a company would, if it could, outsource higher level jobs also because it would save them more money. If they don't, its probably because they don't think that we are capable of handling it. That speaks badly about the kind of executives that we churn out.

8:01 am  
Blogger Arch Storm said...

Hey M,
A couple of points that i noted

1)you stated.. 'The ideal way to make a quick buck. Experience doesn’t matter, neither does education – some places are now hiring even high school dropouts.'

So wheres the problem? If people are able to get good jobs even with relatively less experience..isnt that a good thing? Or are u against people making a quick buck through legal channels?

2) your statement 'So before we provide people with decent drinking water, health care and sanitation, we are racking our brains on how to connect them to the global market'

BPOs and call centers are the initiative of the private companies. They buy the bandwidth, they install the communication systems and they employ the people. It is a simple equation of spending X dollars and getting back double the amount. Now why exactly would they be interested in providing half the population of india with water supplies? they are not there for charity...jus capitalistic people out to make some profit...what exactly do u have against that?

3) ur statement..'They make money by sending us the dirty work to do and paying less for it'

Is anyone begging Indian call centers to take up the projects? I dont think so...if India doesnt take it..big deal...Phillipines will..China will...I feel it is India who needs the Call center and BPO assignments more than anyone else.
Regarding the pay scale..the companies jus pay according to the local currency payscale..

4) Ur statement.... 'That’s why the first world doesn’t want to do it.'
Believe me...the first world WANTS to do it...there are so many senators and lawmakers out here in the US who are mad about jobs being transferred to India.

I really think you havent understood the basics of Economics...coz anyone who has, would understand that the Call centers are a win-win situation for everyone...If you need further proof, ask some of my friends from my undergrad school who couldnt make it to software companies and are employed by the call centers... some income is better than no income Mrid...not everyone is born with a silver spoon..

11:14 am  
Anonymous Mediochre said...

@ arch storm: 'not everyone is born with a silver spoon...'
true, all the more reason why they shldn't have to choose betn dignity & daily wages - why does a person at a call centre have to speak in a difft accent and be up-to-date on a country & lifestyle that are alien ?

7:34 am  
Blogger KoPoS said...

@mediochre: cuz thats the nature of the job.

Why would a soldier have to hold a gun his hand and stand in chilly weather and wait for some stranger's bullet?

Why should a film reviewer see movies and comment on them?

Isnt that elementary?

12:02 am  
Anonymous a no nymous said...

.oO ( NO!!! Dont open your mouth )
*bang bang bang*
.oO ( There. That took care of that )

Here's what bothers me about "outsourcing". Agreed it is a Good Thing (TM), in that it brings in money... that it brings in jobs. But at what cost?

1. Do we really want to evolve into a corporate controlled "democracy" that the US has evolved into? I can see all you capitalist right wingers out there clutching the seats of your chairs, eager to wrap your fingers around my neck. But, if you control yourselves and listen me out, I'll give you a lollipop, or maybe a BPO job. So listen. To say that the US isn't corporate controlled would mean either that you're a utopian optimist, or that you were born with half a brain. I'd back that up with links, but then google is your friend.

Consider this - 20 years from now, Ford decides that it wants to raze a couple of villages down to build the next supermegagigantic factory. Who do you think wins? The poor farmers? Or Ford, with money and a couple thousand jobs? Who do you think the Govt. will side with? The thousand Ford employess and Ford itself, or the poor voicelss farmers?

2. Innovation. What makes the US what she is, is that she built herself up. Her people are free to think and innovate, not bound by "research" that some boss in another country throws in their faces. Those of you that'll count the patents from GE Bangalore, answer me this: How many of those patents are owned by Indians? And with the new patent laws, who gets to make the REAL profit off of them? (And, for those of you too blinded by the BPO bling to see what's obviou - how do you think those patent laws came to be in the first place?).

The US is out there conducting research on anti-matter weapons and we're here struggling to build our own LCA. What's worse, instead of investing more in LCA research, we choose to buy engines from GE and F-16s from whoever else. Why? Because it's easy. Just like showing the masses BPO jobs is easy. And in the process of taking the easy way out, we loose our spines and our independent creative thought.

3. Cultural Identity. Heh. oooh boy... I see you guys out there. "Culture vulture". "Pseudo". Believe me, that's not it. I listen to my share of western music. I read my share of western fiction. Heck, I'm even writing this in a western language with a nouveau western style.

Cultural identity is a good thing. It builds pride in who you are, a certain idea of 'self'. Mindless ape-ery can only result in that - mindless ape-ery. Case in point, how many bollywood movies have you seen lately that aren't "inspired" by some Hollywood film? How many teenagers do you know that'd give up a rock band concert to go to an Indian classical music concert? How is this related to the BPO thing? Well, why don't you ask the neighbourhood kid who works at the call center? I'm sure he'll explain it to you, WITH the proper accent and embellished with proper americanisms.
But here's what bugs me most - we're learning to think a certain way. And that learning is directed not by introspection and self-analysis, but by external factors. I wouldn't even call it learning. The less Indian-ness we have, the more we'll think like the USA. That is bad even from an academic stand-point. Any kind of intellectual activity thrives best in a diverse environment. Homogenize, and we have insipid blandness that we're willing to compromise into "creativity".

I'd say more. But, eh, what's the point.
So... BPO Zindabad, long live the USA, भाढ मे जाए बाकी सब...

6:44 am  
Blogger Baejaar said...

"I believe in the dignity of labor, whether with head or hand; that the world owes no man a living but that it owes every man an opportunity to make a living."
- John D. Rockefeller

Let us realize that no job is below our dignity to take up.

After all a cobler or door to door sales man deserves the same respect as that of software engineer.

Even without outsourcing - how many jobs can we think of, which isnt mundane/repetitious? CA's, Manager of factory, Chef in restaurant - no matter which field we are in, its up to us whether we find it interesting or not.

There is a popular misconception - that jobs are being outsourced to third world countries only bcoz Americans arent interested in doing it. On the contrary it is purely bcoz of economics. The cost of doing the same job is very high in US (there material/infrastructure cost is much lower when compared to labor charges).

Todays newspaper carried the headline - Boeing has outsourced some of the research to Bangalore IISc. Also supersonic missile was jointly developed by India and Russia (kind of outsourced by Russia?).

As far as software field is concerned, I can quote an example. Infosys has Consultancy division which is based in US employing experts from various countries. They are competing with MNC consultancy companies. Even in development, I am part of group which does research in **** computing. It is to be implemented in ******* company bcoz they arent able to do it. (Sorry about the stars. I have signed Non Disclosure Agreement)

6:00 am  

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